Fluid Imaginalphabet: B is for Beat

InThe Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer, Sandra Scofield writes:

The term beat refers to the way one breaks down events into small steps of action, making it possible to evaluate whether those steps move the action effectively toward the culmination of the scene. Even if the beats are nested in a scene dense with description or reflection, making them clear and vivid will keep the line of action in the reader’s mind as the scene moves toward the outcome of the event.

Think about an event, any event. For this example, let’s use something slightly dramatic, a police officer telling a newlywed man that his wife has just been killed in a car accident.

As you can imagine, such a scene will be filled with all kinds of vivid emotion and (if it’s any good) rich description. But if the reader can’t follow the individual beats of the scene, the actions and reactions of your characters — in short, what your characters are actually doing during the scene — then all of your emotion and description will be for naught.

Told from the perspective of the police officer, the beats for our imaginary scene might include the following:

  1. The rookie officer pulls up to the victim’s house
  2. The officer knocks on the door
  3. The officer rehearses what she will say
  4. A kind-looking, young man opens the door
  5. The officer asks if the man is who she thinks he is
  6. The man answers in the affirmative
  7. The officer looks past the man, into the living room, where there is a picture of the now-dead woman kissing the kind man at the door during their recent wedding
  8. The officer begins to speak, but finds herself crying before she can get the words out
  9. The man invites her in, and not understanding the issue, he begins to comfort her
  10. The officer becomes embarrassed
  11. He continues to comfort her
  12. Sitting in the living room, facing the photos and knickknacks of the poor newlyweds, she grows even more upset
  13. The officer becomes cowardly, and can’t tell him the truth
  14. She lies about why she’s there, making up some story about why she’s crying and why she knocked on his door, making sure to keep the two facts unrelated
  15. He tries to calm her down, but to no avail
  16. She excuses herself without ever explaining that his wife is dead
  17. She gets in her patrol car
  18. He watches from the screen door
  19. She backs out of the driveway and drives down the block
  20. She pulls over and cries

Now, that’s a relatively dramatic event in the police officer’s day (not to mention the poor husband’s!), and it might make for an interesting short story. But as you begin drafting it, you might find that you’re getting caught up in the officer’s backstory. Since you need her to be the kind of person who would grow cowardly in face of such a conflict, you’ve detoured the reader into the officer’s character history, which is fine. But unless you keep control of the beats in your actual scene, your reader (and you) will get confused.

Basically, the beats of a scene are the outline of what’s happening. If you pull them out of your text and look at them in the abstract, they’ll not only keep you on track, but they’ll also ensure that the logic of your scene remains plausible.

In the above example, the crux of the event happens in beats ten through thirteen. You can see the subtlety that those beats will need from the verbs we’ve used to describe them: becomes, continues, and grows, followed by a non-action, the can’t telling of the central truth. If I were to actually write this scene, I’d probably break those four individual beats into finer detail, zooming in on them until the logic of her cowardice makes sense to even the bravest of men.

I’ll give Miss Scofield the final word:

[Scenes can have] a beautiful interweaving of character interaction, theme, and mood, but all those things [only] work [if your character] is doing something.

Let your taste drive you, not kill you

“All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. And the thing I would say to you with all my heart…if you’re going through this phase, it’s totally normal, and the most important possible thing you could do is do a lot of work, a huge volume of work…It’s only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap.” — Ira Glass (via kottke.org)

Writers need structure

“[For writers], freedom can be our worst enemy. It can lead to paralysis, procrastination, aimlessness, or indecision. And especially for writers who are just starting out, the principles still need to be learned. While we may need room to experiment and explore, we also need meaningful practice and a way of measuring progress.” — Jane Friedman

A Game Changer?

“Amazon on Wednesday announced that later this year it will launch the Kindle Lending Library, a feature that will allow Kindle customers to borrow books from 11,000 libraries across the United States… Once the feature launches, customers will be able to borrow Kindle e-books from their local libraries and start reading them instantly.” — Macworld, writing about a press release that could change the entire game of ebooks: why buy when you can borrow, over and over and over again?

Give your writing the gift of time

“[Hemingway] knew that a book or short story had its own timetable, and he didn’t try to force it. If a project needed weeks, months or years in the editing and rewriting phase, that’s what he gave it. Despite the same anxiety for publication that all writers share, he still gave his books the time they needed to develop. ” — Rachelle Gardner, on things writers can learn from Hemingway